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The Other Violence: Research in El Salvador and Guatemala


Whilst the Middle East deservedly attracts the attention of the world for the political violence which has cost the lives of thousands, Latin America is off the radar. However, it is the region of the world with the highest levels of violence outside a war zone. Indeed in the month of May, 2015, El Salvador even surpassed the murders that month in Iraq with over 600 homicides.

The violences in Latin America reflect a multiplicity of violences but not a polarised war between parties. This makes it much more complex. However, it raises many important questions about the nature of violence and its relationship to politics and economics. While some young men in the Middle East (and some from Europe) have found identity and meaning in joining violent Islamic movements, in Central America, young men with no meaningful futures have found their identity in gangs, extortion and association with organised crime. Latin America (and in particular the Northern Triangle of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, Mexico and Venezuela) is an extreme case of how violence by and outside the State can reproduce itself and how a generation of young men in search of meaning in a consumerist and jobless economy can be the vehicle for its reproduction.

Despite economic growth between 2002 and 2012 and a decline in absolute levels of poverty, Latin America remains the only region of the world where violence has continued to grow, according to the UN Office of Drugs and Crime 2014 report. Violence is compatible with economic growth. This is notably the case when elites have failed to construct an effective and equitable rule of law. And it is compatible with democratisation. The region is no longer under military rule and since the 1990s, with a few exceptions, it has been governed through democratic elections, in which left wing governments have come to power in a number of countries.

Jenny Pearce has been studying Latin American violences and their impacts on politics and participation, in order to understand dynamics of violence reproduction and to contribute to a broader study of politics and violence. Jenny spent nearly a month in the region in July, revisiting sites of her research over the years and also analysing old and new expressions of violence.

El Salvador: historical memory, violence of the past and the present

Jenny Pearce - the other violence 1 In September last year, Jenny returned thirty years on to the war zone of Chalatenango where she had undertaken an oral history of the peasant movement during the Salvadorean civil war. She worked with the Museum of historical memory on building memory using the photographs taken by Mike Goldwater in the journey in what was a guerrilla controlled zone in 1984. In July 2015, Jenny returned with the documentary made by Richard Duffy of the process. The photos below are of the process of showing the documentary in the church in Arcatao, Chalatenango and in the community centre in Las Vueltas. The violence recounted by the peasants is of a savage and brutal violence from the state. Over thirty years later, the violences appear to be from within society. However, the state’s response towards youth gangs is still to militarise the problem, although it is now under the government of the FMLN, who the peasants of Chalatenango supported during the war.

Guatemala: politics, corruption and violence

In April 2015 a report was produced by the international anti corruption body, CICIG, on the financing of Guatemala’s political parties It found that 75% came from organised crime and corruption. Following a brutal civil war, in which over a quarter of a million mostly indigenous people, were slaughtered in the early 1980s, Guatemala had begun a path of democratisation and then to the Peace Accords of 1996. A great deal of hopeful expectations surrounded the Accords. However, high levels of violence, extreme poverty differentially impacting on the indigenous population and systematic corruption have led some to talk today about a ‘captured state’. Jenny Pearce has been following the dynamics of these processes in one Department, Huehuetenango, trafficking has become a major presence since the mid 2000s, Varied forms of rural and urban violence blight the lives of many. Mining contracts and hydroelectric plants have been fiercely resisted by communities who used legal consultations to reject the exploitation of their lands. Since 2013, arrests began of leaders of these movements.

Jenny Pearce - the other violence 4 Currently there are nine peasant leaders in prison, who were part of the protests in Barillas, Huehuetenango. In the meantime, the political system of the department reflects the fragmentation and corruption of the national picture. In these photos, Jenny attended a meeting of the National Electoral Institute who were holding an event in Ixtuahacan, a municipality of Huehuetenango to try and get the political parties to make a ‘gentlemen’s pact’ against violence and corruption. There are sixteen parties in this small municipality of some 40,000 people contesting the role of Mayor in elections due in September. Jenny was asked to speak on behalf of CEDFOG (The Educational and Documentation Centre of the Western Frontier of Guatemala), with whom she has collaborated since 1999. Below, she talks to Natividad, one of the Mayoral candidates, and only the second time a woman, and a Mayan woman has stood. One of the topics of discussion, was how to make it possible for women with babies and pregnant women to stand in the long queues to vote. Other topics, include the importance of not buying votes or taking money from criminal sources or using public money for campaigns.

Professor Jenny Pearce

researches violence, participation and social change. Her interest is rooted in over 40 years of research and action in Latin America, which has focused on struggles for democracy, human rights and social justice.